Monday, November 14, 2011

Good-bye Tigo, I'm making a Beeline for ETL!

Everybody I know is fed up.

A while ago, one of the country’s major cell-phone companies, Tigo was bought by/taken over by/incorporated into an international group called Beeline.

The truth of the matter is I couldn’t give a damn. Then came very strange advertising campaigns showing a chick with a big bee-striped belly standing beside a blue egg (the old Tigo symbol), with its head cocked cutely to the side. Its hands (claws?) are joined together in a respectful Sabeidee as though that would make us forget all the crap that was going to come down on Tigo users.

The reasons for the major screw-up are not clear and I have heard various stories, but the result is that if you have a Tigo phone you can now only call a Tigo phone and if you want to call a phone using a different system you have to have a SIM card from any one of the other providers or a land-line. Also, we cannot call a Tigo phone from any phone that is not Tigo. This means that most people in the country cannot call me at the number on my business card. This also means that I cannot call my wife or other Tigo users using our home phone, only using my Tigo phone which is much more expensive.

So I am losing money and missing calls.

But the worst is Beeline’s attitude. It seems that the casus belli for all of this was their promotion campaign which pissed somebody off. I know not where the responsibility lies but what’s really annoying is that Tigo/Beeline is still sending me promotions by SMS.

Here’s an example:

Visit Beeline booth @ Lao ITECC tonight 11/11/11 to get a chance to win 2 Yamaha FINO, 10 Samsung Galaxy Mini & FREE gifts from Beeline! Call 2010 for details.

I tried to call 2010 just to tell them to fuck off, but I got a busy signal.

Here’s another one:

Win FINO & FREE Gifts @ ThatLuang ITECC, just refill your Beeline balance! @ ITECC today 6 PM: TempleGuys, PullTClub&KeoKung Concert & Dance contest! Info call 2010

Whereas in fact the message I would want to receive from these people is:

We are sorry for screwing up your life. Here are some free calling units to help make up for it.


Our service is interrupted. Here is why (followed by some sort of explanation).

Instead I am getting invitations to dance contests or to hear the Temple Guys (I shudder to imagine…).

And so I am making a beeline for ETL. My choice of ETL is based on the fact that it has the best national coverage and will soon be quoted on the LSX. If I buy shares then I will at least be investing in myself instead of refilling my balance with a company that has proven that it really doesn’t care about me or the inconvenience I have suffered.

Good-Bye Little Chicken

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Voyage to Thakek - A Village

Cities and towns in Asia are not beautiful. As in Vietnam and Thailand, cities like Vientiane are collections of soulless concrete bunkers with ornate flourishing balconies. Hanoi is an exception in that much of the French character has either been maintained or imitated and all of Hanoi is lime-washed in dark ochre.

Towns are worse. Corrugated iron roofs, breeze-block walls, tasteless tiles … You buzz into them and you buzz out again hoping they will leave no trace in your eternal soul. But they do leave a trace and their ugliness is saddening.

Villages, on the other hand, still maintain the genetic memory and genius of ancient times. Houses are built of wood and bamboo; roofs are often thatched. Stilt houses more often than not don’t have private gardens but they are all set off of each other at odd angles, giving them an eccentric feeling of privacy.

Here is a village we discovered by accident, nestled between somewhere here and somewhere else. The Wat is thankfully old and has been spared improvement; the pathways are unpaved and littered with pigs, dogs, bits of garbage and the stuff of life.

Children piss against walls, a sabaidee rings out and strange anomalies encroach, like a cement stairway to a stilt-house covered in bathroom tiles or parabolic antennae with cut cables held in place by pieces of brick.

This is a Laos I love, a land that is still far away, still silent; a land of lonely kitchen fires and solitary monks. This is the Lao in which I yearn to get lost.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Voyage to Thakek - The Land

The trip down there from Vientiane is about six hours on the Route Nationale 13. There are potholes and expanses of gravel and other drivers, but the road is good and my eternal thanks go to David Bowie for having recorded Heroes.

When you finally get to somewhere the landscape is breathtaking. Hills, valleys, rice paddies and rivers.

We went for a trek to the blue lagoon just north of Thakek and had the immense pleasure of getting lost. The weather is turning clement and the monsoon has been reduced to the occasional drizzle.

The paths have been rained out and planks of wood have been raised above the muddy earth. The land is scarcely populated and every now and again a head will be seen bobbing above a hedge or labouring in a rice paddy.

Rocks outcrop in Asian glory: am I looking at something real or am I looking at an ancient Japanese print? Broad valleys are surrounded by bold solitary craggily hills with scarce trees like a bad crew-cut.

All around us is Asia, Asia for as far as the eye can see and the heart can feel. Southeast Asia a back-drop of villages and rivers, beaches and mountains. Cities, temples, pilgrimage sites. Roads, paths and the never-ending thrill of discovery.

Voyage to Thakek - The People

We took advantage of a holiday in the French school to take a few days off with the kids and travel south on Route Nationale 13.

We were a convoy of two cars, since our friend and neighbour, Valérie, has two kids the same age as Zéphyr and Maya-Swann.

Of all the advantages of living in Laos, the greatest must be our contact with the people.  This is the most handsome privilege of being here. They are without a doubt the easiest, most laid-back nation on earth. They have taken bo ping yang and sculpted a life out of it.

There is the broadness of their smiles, the playful twinkling in their eyes and their ever-readiness to take Baby Sayo in their arms so we can eat or otherwise rest.

But more, much more than this, is a certain philosophy that permeates down to the core of their very existence. I would like to take for example a family we met at the blue lagoon.

It took us many more hours to hike there than it should have because out there in the rice fields between the dramatic hills and the meandering paths nothing is signposted.  This is also part of the charm of the country. Despite the long walk and dark looming rain clouds, the way was beautiful and our children were collectively very well behaved and courageous.

So we got to the blue lagoon, a small body of perfect turquoise water nestled in the hills and the children went swimming. A family came to fish. The man had one bum leg. One foot was in a brown shoe and the other tiny one was in a white sandal. Walking was clearly a challenge for him and so was earning a living because he, his wife and handsome sons were wearing rags.

And yet there was none of the miserable self-pitying I have come to expect from people in the West. There was no moping, no poor-me, no “I’m so depressed”. Maybe it is the Buddhist philosophy that desire leads to frustration and therefor unhappiness or maybe some people are simply genetically or historically or culturally disposed to happiness.

They may not be winning Nobel Prizes in physics or amassing huge fortunes or riding in chrome elevators to their sterile condominiums. They may not be listening to Muzak or counting their calories or worrying about nothing. Their simplicity and joy of being, their mood-less-ness and resilience give me reason to pause and wonder: who are we and what is the point?   

Thursday, October 13, 2011

This could be heaven or this could be hell.

On the front cover of today’s Vientiane Times is the news: End Of Buddhist Lent, A Time For Celebrations!

So it’s official. People can get drunk again. Riding through the city has become a labyrinth of party to party instead of street to street and path to path. Everywhere you go people are dancing, singing into microphones, setting off firecrackers and drinking. And drinking.

And drinking.

And driving.

It is also the season of the boat races on the Mekong. The entire country closes down for two days for the boat races. I’m sure it’s really exciting and the boats are surely very colourful, but please don’t expect and photos from me: I don’t exactly suffer from enochlophobia but I am increasingly finding crowds and official celebrations to be unpleasant.

It is nice, though, to awaken to blue skies and watch as the rains become rarer. In one month the city will be scorched again, red and thirsty, and I will miss those tropical storms but in one month it will be snowing in Canada, and I do love a consolation prize.

Marie-Do and I took advantage of a lull to go biking along the Mekong today; from Kilometer Eight up to Kilometer Four to pick the kids up from the École Hoffet. On the way we stopped in a few temples and enjoyed meeting an American Lao who has come back to the Motherland to do his stint in the monastery.

We also fell upon this wonderful fresco of Lao heaven and hell. You’ll notice that the folk in heaven are not just counting American dollars, they’re counting Ben Franklins! The folk in hell come complete with three dimensions and chains, handcuffs and a comic book demon who looks like he’s saying, “Holy Anathema, Batman, look who’s not fornicating anymore!”

Spring is indeed in the air.